A Spiritual Olympics

I think the majority of people engage in or at least admire physical challenges, such as how many pushups they can do or how many days they can fast. Even I, normally completely apathetic towards sports, am drawn to the prowess of the participants in the Olympics because of the beauty of their performance and the ardor that brought them to that pinnacle. In my last post, I spoke to a minority: aspiring chaplains and others who are drawn to other sorts of challenges: emotional and spiritual ones. We peculiar people admire the strength of listeners who can calmly yet attentively hear a sufferer speak at length about the nature of their suffering. We admire the dexterity of healthcare colleagues who can intuit when and how to put in a word or two to let such sufferers know that they are understood and not alone and not crazy to feel as they do.

In my last post, I described what it is like for aspiring chaplains to get their training in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education (called “CPE” for those in the know). In a very timely manner, author and doula Amy Wright Glenn recently sent me an excerpt from her book which describes her own experience as a CPE student and why she took up that challenge:

“We were an eclectic bunch. Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, evangelical Korean Protestants, and rabbis joined me for this journey. I was the only UU. Most of my fellow students were completing their CPE unit as a requirement for their future in church ministry. My goals were more personal. I wanted to experience the bookend of doula work. Knowing how powerful it had been to hold the hands of the birthing, I knew that much wisdom was to be gained from standing at the other end of life’s threshold. One learns much about life by witnessing death.

Every Wednesday night, we gathered for a five-hour training session… Together, our group considered the following questions: What does it mean to enter a patient’s room and be a compassionate witness to his or her pain? What does it mean to embody an open heart in the presence of great and unimaginable loss? What does it mean to die?

We spent many hours discussing the stages of grief and the process of dying, which provided ample material for sleepless nights’ reflections. For nine months, we tried to befriend, or at least acknowledge, the fear that is death’s companion. Author and teacher David Deida writes, ‘Almost everything you do, you do because you are afraid to die. And yet dying is exactly what you are doing, from the moment you are born.’ I had encountered this sentiment before during my time in India. According to the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, all fear is rooted in abhinivesh, the fear of death. For example, we fear shame because it is a death to the ego. We fear aging because it is a death to our youth. In Buddhist teaching, all moments are born and die into each other. Leaving the womb is a death of one state of existence and a birth into another realm. Childhood dies into puberty and the elderly have experienced the death of their young adult years…

We were each assigned a direct supervisor. The stars aligned and I considered myself lucky to be assigned to the only Quaker in the mix. I received extensive feedback and superb supervision. Weekly reports detailing encounters with patients were read aloud and processed as a group… Sometimes the feedback challenged my ego’s pride. Sometimes the feedback opened the door of my heart, facilitating a deeper experience of compassion.

In many ways, our training was uncannily similar to group therapy. Until chaplains deal with their own grief, life traumas, and individual fears around death, they won’t be able to clearly respond to the difficulties that hospital patients encounter. The danger is that we will project our personal issues and dramas onto those we are called to serve. For example, we risk walking into a hospital room and seeing our own ailing grandmother or grandfather rather than the person actually lying in the bed. Processing our own fears is a tonic that enables us to be of service. We can hold an open heart for others only to the extent that we are able to do so for ourselves.” [Excerpt from Amy’s book, Birth, Breath, and Death: Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy, and Life as a Doula (reissued 2014), available on Amazon. A regular contributor to PhillyVoice, she also has a stunning website that includes insights about birthing and chaplaincy, and even an advice column. www.birthbreathanddeath.com ]

Amy Wright Glenn

Amy Wright Glenn

We hereby invite all aspiring chaplains to go for the gold!


2 thoughts on “A Spiritual Olympics

  1. Great post, Karen. I like competition. Networking is like iron against iron. It makes us sharper.


  2. Then may the games begin!


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